ANALYSIS WATER: Water Scarcity Could Affect Billions: Is This the Biggest Crisis of All? ; L Population Growth, Pollution and Climate Change Are Causing a Drastic Decline in Supply, and the World Is Ignoring the Risks, Says the UN
Michael McCarthy Environment Editor, The Independent (London, England)
GLUG-GLUG: Not normally a sound of foreboding. But mankind's most serious challenge in the 21st century might not be war or hunger or disease or even the collapse of civic order, a UN report says; it may be the lack of fresh water.
Population growth, pollution and climate change, all accelerating, are likely to combine to produce a drastic decline in water supply in the coming decades, according to the World Water Development Report, published today. And of course that supply is already problematic for up to a third of the world's population.
At present 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water and 2.4 billion lack access to proper sanitation, nearly all of them in the developing countries. Yet the fact that these figures are likely to worsen remorselessly has not been properly grasped by the world community, the report says. "Despite widely available evidence of the crisis, political commitment to reverse these trends has been lacking."
Faced with "inertia at the leadership level and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem", the global water crisis will reach unprecedented heights in the years ahead, the report says, with growing per capita scarcity in many parts of the developing world. And that means hunger, disease and death.
The report makes an alarming prediction. By the middle of the century, it says that, in the worst case, no fewer than seven billion people in 60 countries may be faced with water scarcity, although if the right policies are followed this may be brought down to two billion people in 48 nations.
The report is intended as an alarm call, launched in advance of the World Water Forum taking place in Kyoto, Japan this month, when it is hoped that governments and policy makers will make a new commitment to get to grips with the water problem internationally. That, sadly, seems unlikely, especially if the United States and Britain have just invaded Iraq and the world is convulsed by war.
A big difficulty with water is that, at least in the rich West, it is largely taken for granted. After all, it is the most widely- occurring substance, most of the planet being H2O. But the words of Coleridge are apposite: "Water, water everywhere", as the Ancient Mariner said, "Nor any drop to drink".
Although water is the commonest stuff on earth, only 2.53 per cent of it is fresh, while the rest is salt. And of the freshwater, two thirds is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover. What is available, in lakes, rivers, aquifers (ground water) and rainfall run-off, is now increasingly coming under pressure from several directions at once.
Population growth is the prime driver. The soaring of human numbers to more than six billion by the millennium meant that water consumption almost doubled in half a century. Between 1970 and 1990 available per capita water supply decreased by one third. Even though birth rates are now slowing, world population is still likely to increase by half as much again, to about 9.3 billion by 2050.
Demand, of course, comes not just from the need to drink, the need to wash and the need to deal with human waste, enormous though these are; the really great calls on water supply come from industry in the developed world, and, in the developing world, from agri- culture. Irrigating crops in hot dry countries accounts for 70 per cent of all the water use in the world.
Pollution, from industry, agriculture and not least, human waste, adds another fierce pressure. About two million tons of waste are dumped every day into rivers, lakes and streams, with one litre of waste water sufficient to pollute about eight litres of fresh water. …